Pick from the Past
Natural History, April 1935

José

Two months from the life
of a Barro Colorado coati


Part I:
(Part II / Part III)

HEN, in December, 1934, I returned to my “Castle” on Barro Colorado in the Canal Zone, I was determined to have a feeding-place for birds that would defy the raids of coatis. All my previous attempts to circumvent these intelligent animals had failed. In December, 1931, toucans had just begun to feed from a tray hoisted by a pulley to the limbs of a cecropia when the coatis discovered it and the toucans knew it no more. Other devices were equally futile. Unfortunately all my prospective bird guests, toucans, tanagers, honey creepers, etc., were fruit-eaters, and I had nothing but bananas and papayas to offer them. Both of these fruits are favorites of the coati; of the former, indeed, he is inordinately fond and its far-reaching fragrance appeals to his marvelous sense of smell with all the force of a dinner bell to a hungry boy.

Some years ago, to prevent ripe bananas from drawing insects into the house, I placed them in a well-covered mail box nailed to the clapboards just outside my door. A few hours later, when I returned, the box was down and the bananas had disappeared. After the box had been re-nailed to its place, a coati was seen sitting on its lid.

Coatis are highly intelligent animals with a wide range of activities. To see the dirt fly before their long, curved nails and muscular legs, as they unearth some luckless grub, is to be convinced that they are preeminently terrestrial. To watch them select and pluck ripe almendro nuts from the tip of a branch 150 feet in the air, you are equally certain that they are in the highest degree arboreal.
This opened upward and the coati was therefore obliged to tear it from its fastenings before he could secure what he evidently was certain it contained. In short, coatis are highly intelligent animals with a wide range of activities. To see the dirt fly before their long, curved nails and muscular legs, as they unearth some luckless grub, is to be convinced that they are preëminently terrestrial. To watch them select and pluck ripe almendro nuts from the tip of a branch 150 feet in the air, you are equally certain that they are in the highest degree arboreal. But the promptness with which they seek the ground, when they realize that they have been seen above, leaves no doubt that it is their real home. When, therefore, I decided to match my wits against those of the coatis, I felt from various experiences that the odds were in their favor. On the other hand, I believed that there must be some place accessible to wings that was beyond the reach of a quadruped weighing from fifteen to twenty pounds or more. The air, halfway between my observation balcony and the forest, seemed to offer such a place. From my balcony post Arturo and I, therefore, ran two parallel wires, the size of a pencil-lead, to the nearest forest tree, distant twenty-eight feet, and from them hung a shallow, wire-bottomed tray. A simple arrangement of strings with a pulley attached to the tree enabled me to draw the tray to and fro. Placing a banana and slice of papaya in it, we contemplated our work with satisfaction, bade birds partake and coatis observe.

José Appears

The birds, it must be confessed, were long deaf to our invitation; but at least one coati accepted it promptly. All coatis are endowed with so strong a personality that involuntarily
All coatis are endowed with so strong a personality that involuntarily one thinks of them not as species but as individuals. Then, if a certain animal is seen often enough, it soon acquires a name, but why this particular coati was called “José,” I am unable to say, although I christened him.
one thinks of them not as species but as individuals. Then, if a certain animal is seen often enough, it soon acquires a name, but why this particular coati was called “José,” I am unable to say, although I christened him. The name seemed to fit, and, in time, he appeared to accept it.

Apparently we had placed our feeding-tray above a route along which, in his regular rounds, José passed daily. It was his nose that first informed him there was a banana in his territory. To him its odor was doubtless as impressive as a tangible substance. He stopped, twitched and wrinkled his sensitive nostrils, and with his long, slender snout “tried the air” in circular sweeps or vertical tosses of the head. A banana might be in full view but it was his nose rather than his eyes on which he depended for information. (Later this was proved conclusively.) He went a little to the right, then to the left, climbed a stump, ran out on a reclining tree-trunk, stopping frequently to test the air, until by a series of nasal triangulations he appeared to have located the source of the smell that so strongly attracted him. Then, if possible, he went directly to it.

Jose hauls the banana upward toward the tray.

José hauls the banana upward toward the tray.

Photo by Frank M. Chapman
Following His Nose

That he could reach my tray, suspended in mid-air, I did not for a moment believe; but the situation did not seem to worry José. Having made his observations and decided on a course of action, he easily and confidently shinnied up the tree to which the wires were attached until he reached their level; then he paused. The next stage toward that increasingly alluring scent was different from anything he had ever seen before; but that did not prevent him from investigating it. Nose swaying and tossing, he pushed his forefeet carefully out on one of the wires and, balancing himself with his tail on the other wire, he covered about half the distance to the tray and the banana, when he suddenly lost his nerve and, almost falling, scrambled back to the tree.

At once he began a second trial. This time he reached the tray, grabbed the banana, and started to return with it so quickly that he lost his balance, but clung to the wire upside down and regained the tree, hand over hand. But he did not lose his head or sight of his objective. Sliding down the tree backward, he went straight to the banana, which had fallen from the tray, and devoured it on the spot. It was certainly small enough reward for the effort expended.

José soon became an astonishingly skillful wire-walker. The distance of the tray from the tree was gradually increased until it was halfway to my balcony. But if the trays held a banana, José started on his seemingly impossible journey without hesitation. One might have expected a small monkey to be at home here, but that a heavy, plantigrade animal could so quickly learn to progress on a wire so small that it looked as if it would break beneath his weight was amazing. It was, however, an obviously difficult undertaking calling for courage and skill. His body quivered rigidly with the intense muscular effort required to maintain his balance.

Only once in his many journeys to the tray did he fall. Then it turned over with him, and he seemed to dive nose first the eighteen or twenty feet to the ground. But the banana accompanied him and, on landing, without a moment's loss of time he continued his meal.

Although José had now learned to associate the bird-tray with bananas, he continued for some days to be guided by his nose. Each time, before mounting, he assured himself by scent that there was something there worth the effort. It was not until later, and then rarely, that he climbed to the tray when it was without a banana.

José’s Adaptability

Four days after the initial venture on December 13, I varied the proceedings by suspending a banana from the tray at the end of a three-foot string; but this procedure occasioned José no difficulty whatever. He merely continued to follow his nose. Looking over the side of the tray his eyes confirmed what his nose had already told him. The fact that the object of his desires was beyond his reach was readily remedied. With a skill gained perhaps
Although José had now learned to associate the bird-tray with bananas, he continued for some days to be guided by his nose. Each time, before mounting, he assured himself by scent that there was something there worth the effort. It was not until later, and then rarely, that he climbed to the tray when it was without a banana.
through long experience in pulling almendro nuts on terminal branches, he hauled the banana up hand over hand, with occasional assistance from his teeth, and devoured it in the tray at ease. In fact, he became so at home in the tray that, his banana finished, he often remained there to yawn, scratch, and rest.

Further to test Joséís adaptability I now hung a banana from the end of a stick projecting from the hillside below my balcony at an angle of about 45 degrees. The first question to answer here was the location of the fruit. As before, this was done through the sense of smell. Then the best method of approach was considered. Seen from below it seemed to be near the tray which at the moment chanced to be over it, and it required a journey to that swinging platform to convince José that he was on the wrong track. Eventually he discovered that by going up the hill, apparently away from the banana, he could reach the base of the pole from the tip of which it swung. Then followed a journey of nine feet on the pole to reach the string. This trip occasioned José more difficulty than the one over the wires to the tray, and demonstrated the importance of his tail when climbing. There were two wires, and the one that supported his tail was as useful as the one that supported his body. But the single pole offered small support to the tail as a balancing organ, and José was upset several times before he reached the string and pulled up the banana. But he always held on to it, even when upside down, and, pulling and biting, accomplished his end. Then, victorious, he returned to the ground. On one of these trials the pole broke, depositing José ten feet or more down the hill. But he seemed as resilient as rubber. The banana fell with him and was at once retrieved. I regret that I cannot show José the motion picture I have of this incident.

Intelligence Tests

In the next test of Joséís intelligence, a string was thrown over a single wire about ten feet from the ground. A banana, tied to the free end, hung about three feet below the wire and hence seven feet above the ground. The other end of the string was made fast to the ground directly under the banana.

This puzzle José solved almost at a glance. Approaching upright, on his hind legs, he was soon convinced that he could not reach the banana, so he clasped the grounded string in his forepaws and, sailor-like, pulled it down. When the banana refused to cross the wire he pulled harder and, as a last resort, furiously bit the string Until it was severed and the banana fell at his feet.

The ground, or longer end of the string, was now moved to the end of the nine-foot pole, previously mentioned, where its relation to the banana hanging over the wire was less obvious than when it was directly below it. But it was sufficiently clear to José, and although the hauling and biting were done less easily from the unstable footing at the end of the pole, they were never shirked, and sooner or later the prize was won.

Persistence

Persistence, indeed, was Joséís dominant characteristic. He might rest between attempts, but in no single instance did he fail to win his reward. After a fruitless effort he would retire to a favorite resting place on a partly fallen trunk, stretch out with chin on paws, at intervals yawn widely and otherwise give evidence of the fact that he had no interest in bananas. But ever and again their tantalizing fragrance reached his nostrils, his head went up, he whiffed the air on this side and that, and finally, unable to resist, returned to another and, eventually, successful attempt.

Without a diagram it is difficult to give a clear conception of Joséís actions. Whether intentional or not I do not pretend to say, but he often apparently followed plans which seemed at first to lead him far from the end in view. Thus, when I hung a banana from a single wire, he seemed to realize at once that it was beyond his reach and made no attempt to climb to it. But that does not mean that he gave up the banana. Climbing up the tree to which one end of the wire was fastened, he pulled the wire so violently that the banana was shaken from it. Whether José anticipated this result or just pulled on general principles is unknown, but the moment the banana fell, he hastily descended the tree and went to it.

This maneuver was repeated with variations. In one instance the banana was hung from the tray on its trolley midway between my balcony and the forest, where it apparently could be reached from the end of the pole already mentioned. The pole was first tried, and although José gave a supreme demonstration of his balancing powers by rising to an upright position at its end, he lacked the nerve to make the needed spring for the fruit. Whereupon he returned to the ground, went fifteen feet to the base of the “tray tree,” climbed twenty feet up to the attachment of the trolley, slid fifteen feet out on the wires to the tray, pulled up the banana, and ate it where he sat. After seeing such an exhibition of intelligence, one understands why Nasua narica panamensis is a successful species.

A Futile Defense

Another case in point occurred late in our relations. Finding that a tray suspended in mid-air was as accessible to coatis as it was to a pair of beautiful “Sangre del Toro” tanagers that had begun to visit it, I decided that the birdsí rights must be defended. Arturo, therefore, placed on the “tray tree” below the trolley wires, a large umbrella-cone of sheet zinc. In vain the other coatis tried to surmount this guard. Around and around they climbed beneath its overshadowing roof, no opening could be found. In vain they tried to climb over it; and shortly, they abandoned further attempts. But, so far as I know, José never tried to pass this obstacle. His familiarity with the surroundings taught him a better way. Going thirty feet farther into the forest he climbed another tree to a point where its branches touched those of the tray tree, crossed to it, and slid down it to the point above the guard where the trolley was attached and, as before, slid out on the wires to the tray and the tanagersí banana.

To learn more clearly the respective parts played by Joséís eyes and nose in the location of food, I carved and colored a wooden banana with such unexpected success that a banana grower to whom I showed it told me the variety to which it belonged! When this was exposed alone, it attracted no attention; but when there were real bananas near it to supply the characteristic banana fragrance, its appearance was sufficiently deceptive to call for some inspection. At the most a mere touch, and more often a sniff at a distance of six to eight inches, was sufficient to reveal the fraud. Another experiment supplied more convincing proof that Joséís chief provider is his nose.

After he had become wholly accustomed to securing a banana tied to the end of a string hung from what was designed to be the tanagersí tray, the suspended banana was placed in a box. It was thereby concealed from his eyes but not from his nose, and the boxed banana was retrieved just as readily as though it had been fully exposed. When, however, the box was hung without a banana, the absence of the fruit was usually discovered by sniffing from the ground and no closer inspection was made. But if a banana was placed in the tray and an object about a banana’s weight, in the box, the tray banana was eaten and the box hauled up to within six or eight inches and then quickly dropped. This test was made repeatedly and no one seeing it could doubt Joséís complete confidence in the information he received from his nose.

It was to be expected that news of Joséís good fortune should spread through the neighboring forest. It may have been banana borne, it may have been communicated by the coatis themselves. The fact remains that I had visits from other coatis than José.

During the greater part of the year male coatis live alone, while the female is accompanied by her five or six young, probably until, in the summer, another family appears. Several times I was visited by a female and her well-grown children; a harum-scarum lot scampering through the edge of the forest and coming out cautiously for bananas; for they had small faith in me. If José was present on such occasions he paid no attention to these strangers. Perhaps he would not have recognized them if they had been his own offspring.

Several times a second male appeared. Just what his relations were with José I do not know, for the two were never present together. José was slightly the larger and I think the older of the two and was further distinguished by a golden suffusion resulting from a dash of dilute picric acid I poured upon his back. This enabled me to identify him, not only at home but should I chance to meet him abroad.

It might be imagined that an unfailing supply or bananas would induce José to make the vicinity of my balcony his permanent abode. In truth he visited me but twice daily, in the morning and again in the afternoon. The length of his stay was not dependent on the available supply of bananas. I was often prepared to give him as many as he could dispose of, but six seemed to be his limit. This, however, was late in the morning, and who could tell what genial assortment of nuts, grasshoppers, grubs, and lizards had preceded them? His wants supplied, José was ready for a short nap in one of several favorite resting places in the fallen tree I have already mentioned, but for a real siesta he disappeared for several hours within a maze of vegetation enveloping a large tree just within the forest.

Jose climbs the balcony to take a banana from Doctor Chapmanís hand

José climbs the balcony to take a banana from Doctor Chapmanís hand, but he has yet to learn where the banana ends and the human fingers begin. Doctor Chapmanís right foot is pressing the camera bulb.

Photo by Frank M. Chapman
In spite of sundry falls, empty boxes, and a wooden banana, José did not lose faith in me as the ultimate source of a delectable food, while Joséís patience, perseverance, and ingenuity aroused in me a desire for a closer acquaintance with an animal of such unquestionable intelligence. By this time José had in a large measure lost fear of me and learned to look to my hand rather than to the tray or the end of a string for his favorite food. This advance in our relations was not made in a single step. It was some time before, with hesitation, he climbed the balcony, and snatched a banana from my hand in a manner that paid small regard to my fingers, and fled with it to the forest.

But the expected danger never materialized. Always there was another banana awaiting him. Perhaps, after all, it was not necessary to be so hurried. So, step by step, always forward, new associations were formed and the banana eaten calmly while I held it; an act, by the way, calling for a mutual exhibition of good faith.

That I reached Joséís stomach no one can doubt; that I passed beyond it to his heart is perhaps too much to expect of a creature whose heart, so far as man is concerned, had heretofore performed only a physiological function. Be that as it may, the time came when the call of his kind was stronger than any I could exert, and José disappeared. Doubtless he had abandoned the solitary ways that probably have won for him the name of gato solo, and gone to seek a mate in the forest.

Day after day passed and the fully ripe, strongly scented banana that each morning I placed on my balcony railing was uncalled for. But I do not give up hope that in his own time José will return to me—and more bananas. And what a story he will have to tell! What a contribution he may make to the study of sexual selection. I want particularly to know if his rich golden, picric acid coat did not distinguish him among his rivals.

Postscript

February 11, 1935. After an absence of two weeks José returned today. He was on the tanagersí tray when first I saw him, and after he had finished the banana he was eating, returned on the trolley to the tree at the edge of the forest. Thence he made no attempt to reach the ground over the zinc guard but climbed twelve feet up the tree to a swinging vine. This he descended, sailor-wise, to a partly fallen trunk over which, by a devious route, he reached the earth. He was now well down the hill in the forest, but in response to my call, with some hesitation, for during his absence the world had not been kind to José, he came to the balcony and took a banana from my hand.

It was not necessary to ask José for his story. As he approached, it was told graphically and gruesomely by his wounds. No longer will the stains of picric acid
It was not necessary to ask José for his story. As he approached, it was told graphically and gruesomely by his wounds.
be needed to identify him. He will be forever marked by his scars. His left shoulder is widely gashed, he will doubtless lose the sight of one eye, his left upper lip is torn and hanging, revealing all the teeth it formerly covered, and he bears minor injuries from the end of his nose to the tip of his tail. Surely he is a “bonnie fighter.” What, I thought, is the condition of his enemies? But my sympathies are with José. Doubtless aided only by nature and his rugged strength he will recover. Nevertheless, I long for some means of winning his confidence and treating his wounds. At least I can give him an unfailing supply of bananas—and there will be no strings attached to them.

Continue to Part II

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